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Packers' 2021 decisions: David Bakhtiari or Aaron Jones? Kenny Clark or Kevin King?

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Why the Packers have had a quiet free-agency period (1:37)

Rob Demovsky examines the Packers' activity during free agency and offers a player to keep an eye on for Green Bay in the draft. (1:37)

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- You wanted Cory Littleton, not Christian Kirksey; Austin Hooper, not Devin Funchess; Bryan Bulaga, not Rick Wagner.

But did you want them more than David Bakhtiari or Kenny Clark? How about Aaron Jones, Kevin King and Corey Linsley?

If the Green Bay Packers want to keep some -- or all -- of their next class of free-agents-to-be, then this was the way general manager Brian Gutekunst had to proceed. He couldn't pay the $11.75 million a year the Raiders gave Littleton or the $10.5 million a year the Browns gave Hooper or the $10 million the Chargers gave Bulaga.

This year would have to be different -- no $182 million spending spree in the first 24 hours of free agency like last year -- because of what's coming next year.

Bakhtiari, Clark, Jones, King and Linsley all enter 2020 with expiring contracts. All five are starters. All five play key positions.

"We're not going to be able to do what we did in unrestricted free agency like we did last year," Gutekunst said a month before free agency. "I think that's going to be very difficult just with the restraints that we have. But I think when you look at free agency overall, with salary-cap casualties and different kinds of things, I think we'll be able to add some players to our roster that can help us. But we're certainly not in the position we were in last year with the resources. We're going to have to do some different things this year."

Enter Kirksey, who was cut by the Browns, at inside linebacker. And Wagner, cut by the Lions, at right tackle. He then added Funchess, the receiver who played one game for the Colts last season because he broke his collarbone in Week 1.

While Gutekunst still might add another late value signing or two, the bulk of his work to upgrade the 2020 roster -- specifically more weapons for quarterback Aaron Rodgers -- will have to come via the draft. And then he'll have to work on securing the 2021 roster.

But where to begin?

Two longtime NFL people -- a scout and an assistant coach -- agreed to rank the Packers' fivesome of starters who will be free agents after this season in order of who they would re-sign.

Independent of the other, they both submitted the exact same order: Bakhtiari, Clark, Linsley, Jones and King.

"If you have a dominant tackle in this business -- right or left tackle, it doesn't matter -- you have to keep him," the assistant coach said, referring to the All-Pro Bakhtiari.

"Same thing in the middle [of a defense] with big guys," he said referring to the defensive tackle Clark.

Perhaps the two biggest surprises in the rankings were how high Linsley placed and how low Jones came in. In Linsley's case, who pays big money to centers?

"Good teams pay centers," the assistant said. "And they pay them more than they're probably worth and maybe past their [prime] years because they understand the relationship between the center and the quarterback. You can't put a price on that relationship between him and Aaron Rodgers. And even if it's a young QB, that's important, too."

In the case of Jones, how can a team consider not re-signing someone who last year accounted for 19 regular-season touchdowns (23 including postseason, the most in franchise history) and 1,558 yards from scrimmage?

"I just don't know what you do with Jones, I really don't," the scout said. "He's damn good and he fits that offense to a T, but …"

The but, in this case, is this:

"Running backs are just so hard to keep healthy," the assistant said. "Who's paid a back and made it work? I don't know. I'm asking. I can't think of one. Look at what just happened with [Todd] Gurley.

"Jones is a tough one, though. He gave you 20 touchdown. Even if he gives you 10 [this year], that's a lot to replace. But hey, he was a fifth-round pick, so you can find them. I would not pay the running back."

A source told ESPN at the combine last month Jones' agent was scheduled to meet with the Packers and was open to starting talks now for a contract extension even though he could raise his value if he put up another season like 2019. For a fifth-round pick like Jones, who hasn't gotten a sizable payday yet, perhaps he would be willing to take less now rather than wait for a bigger check next offseason.

But he may not be the priority.

It might be Clark, based on what Gutekunst said shortly after last season.

"Kenny's a big part of what we do, very important to our defense," he said in January. "I'm optimistic we'll be able to come to some agreement at some point. These things don't happen quickly, usually. The idea was always sometime this offseason we'd start to approach that, and we will."

Clark, Jones and King all will be coming off their rookie contracts, while Bakhtiari and Linsley are finishing their second deals. Clark (the 27th pick in the 2016 draft) and King (No. 33 in 2017) are the highest draft picks among the group.

The biggest question with King is his health. The cornerback has yet to play a season without missing a game (although he came close last year, missing just one) due to myriad injuries.

"Between Jones and King, you're flipping quarters in my opinion," the assistant said.

Like any deal, it will come down to money. A longtime agent who correctly predicted what Bulaga and former Packers linebacker Blake Martinez ($10 million per year) got in free agency and for years has kept a chart of what he thinks players will get on their next deals, valued the Packers' fivesome for next year like this:

  • Bakhtiari: $17 million per year

  • Clark: $17 million

  • Linsley: $10 million

  • King: $10 million

  • Jones: $5 million

At those prices, Jones probably would be a no-brainer. But what if he has another 1,500-yard, double-digit touchdown season? The price would surely inflate.

The Packers have about $160 million already committed to the 2021 salary cap. The cap is sure to increase from this year's $198.2 million. It hasn't increased by less than $10 million annually in any of the last seven years.